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Amir Peretz announces he’s stepping aside as Labor leader

Longtime MK says party ‘needs renewal,’ after leading Labor to worst-ever electoral performance and breaking his vow not to join Netanyahu-led government; hopes to become president

Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Labor chairman Amir Peretz on Wednesday said he was stepping aside as leader of the dovish party, after driving Labor to its lowest-ever showing in the past election and later breaking his campaign promise not to join a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The announcement by Peretz, who serves as economy minister, came after the Knesset dissolved over the government’s failure to pass a budget, sending Israel to a fourth round of national elections in two years. Recent opinion polls have consistently indicated Labor will fail to cross the minimum vote threshold in new elections.

“Out of a sense of responsibility, I am announcing that in the upcoming elections, I won’t lead the Labor party and I won’t head the party in the Knesset. At this time, the Labor party needs renewal and must choose a new chairman and leadership,” Peretz wrote on Facebook.

Peretz — the longest-serving MK in Knesset — said he turned down an offer of a senior spot on the Blue and White list, but stopped short of announcing his full resignation from political life. Peretz is seeking to be nominated president after Reuven Rivlin steps down in the summer.

Labor chief Amir Peretz at the opening of the party’s new election headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He also defended his decision to join the coalition, saying he only did so after Blue and White agreed to join forces with Netanyahu. During a previous election campaign, Peretz famously shaved his mustache so that Israelis could “read his lips” and promised he won’t join up with Netanyahu.

Under Peretz, Labor received just three seats as part of its alliance with the Gesher and Meretz parties in the March 2020 election, the worst ever showing for the party that ruled Israel for its first 30 years.

Peretz’s decision to step down as chairman was cheered by Labor MK Merav Michaeli, a fierce critic of the party’s decision to join the unity government between Likud and Blue and White.

“It’s about time. Primaries among the party members — now,” Michaeli wrote on Twitter.

There was no immediate response from Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, the No. 2 in Labor, who unsuccessfully challenged Peretz for the party leadership in July 2019.

Labor lawmakers Itzik Shmuli (L) and Merav Michaeli at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Also Wednesday, several Likud lawmakers called for primaries to shake up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party slate ahead of the upcoming elections, following the defection of several Likud members to Gideon Sa’ar’s new party, New Hope.

MKs Nir Barkat, Eli Cohen and Shlomo Karhi all expressed support for the move. In interviews with Army Radio, Karhi said the internal vote is needed to “restore the trust of its voters,” while Cohen said a final decision will be made next week.

“We need to hold primaries to choose the list for the Knesset because this is our obligation to the 140,000 Likud members,” Barkat wrote on Twitter.

However, the Walla news site said Netanyahu and senior party officials oppose holding primaries and will work to block them, due to the financial cost and logistical challenges of holding a primary vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

Illustrative: Likud supporters outside the Ashdod Likud branch during a primaries vote on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Likud last held primaries in February 2019, ahead of the first of three consecutive elections. The party’s constitution requires that leadership and general primaries be held before every election, but Likud’s internal court approved scrapping the primaries for the party’s slate ahead of the elections in September 2019 and March of this year.

Leadership primaries were held last December, with Netanyahu trouncing his rival Sa’ar.

Wednesday’s calls for party primaries came shortly after MK Sharren Haskel announced she was leaving Likud and resigning from the Knesset to join New Hope, days after MK Michal Shir did likewise.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton also jumped ship to Sa’ar and Derech Eretz MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel announced they would run with New Hope in the new elections.

A pair of television polls aired Tuesday night forecast New Hope will be the second largest party, with one of the surveys putting Sa’ar neck-and-neck with Netanyahu in terms of the candidate deemed best-suited to be the prime minister.

Though the polls predicated Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties would come up short of a majority, they also predicted that his rivals would have had a hard time building a viable coalition.

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